When Tim Burton was growing up in Burbank, California, in ____the late ’60s, he saw Big Eyes everywhere. “I felt like they were following me,” he said, referring to the wildly popular paintings that were long credited to the artist Walter Keane. Burton was sitting at the dining room table in his sparsely furnished apartment in downtown Manhattan, dressed, as per his usual, in black jeans paired with a loose, untucked red shirt that resembled a pajama top. He was wearing socks but not shoes, and his trademark mop of wavy black hair looked particularly electrified. Although he’s been with the actress Helena Bonham-Carter for more than a decade, and they have two children, Burton, 56, still has the manner of a precocious teenager who has spent a great deal of time happily alone. The decor of the apartment could be best described as early dorm room: a life-size bust of Elvis Presley was perched on the kitchen counter and an enormous framed poster for The Killer Shrews leaned against a wall. (“The poster is the best thing about the movie,” Burton said.) “As a kid, I saw paintings by Keane constantly,” Burton continued. “At my doctor’s office, there was a big-eyed girl with a poodle. At my dentist’s office, there was a series of kids with cats. When I went to the market, there were greeting cards with Keane ballerinas, Keane waifs, Keane cowboys, and so on. I was fascinated by their huge, sad, Big Brother–ish eyes. I loved that these strange children always seemed to be watching me. It was like being in a bizarre, captivating dream.”
Burton’s latest film, Big Eyes, which opens on December 25, is both the story of Margaret Keane, the artist who actually painted those images, and a meditation on the nature of popular art. Unlike most of Burton’s movies, in which visual extremes provide a thrilling backdrop for stories of angst-ridden superheroes (Batman, Batman Returns), sympathetic misfits (Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and childlike eccentrics (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Dark Shadows), Big Eyes is a quiet film about a woman who lived in the shadow of her charismatic, megalomaniac husband. For decades, Walter Keane claimed to be the creator of the Big Eyes artworks, which were plastered across America in the ’60s and made him rich, while, in fact, his wife painted every single one. “I had no idea that Margaret was the true artist,” Burton said. “Like everyone else, I believed that Walter Keane was the only Keane.” Burton shook his head. “Even now, even after I’ve met Margaret and made the movie, I still can’t believe that Walter got away with this fraud. I mean, not one person ever saw Walter paint anything—and he was, to me, one of the most famous painters of all time! Now that I know the truth, there’s a dark cloud over all the Keane pictures. They’ve lost their innocence.”
Margaret Hawkins met Walter Keane in the spring of 1955 ____in San Francisco, at an exhibition near Fisherman’s Wharf. According to his shockingly egocentric 1983 autobiography, The World of Keane, she greeted him with the line “You are the greatest artist I have ever seen. You are also the most handsome.” (According to Walter, she later professed, as did dozens of other women mentioned in the book, “You are the greatest lover in the world.”) Cruelly, Walter went on to describe Margaret as having “buck teeth and no chin,” adding that she dreamed of being his disciple. “The waifish girl was like a canvas,” he wrote. “I wondered if I could color her into a complete person.”
Except for his profound faith in his powers of manipulation and self-invention, most of this account is completely fabricated. When Margaret met Walter, she was already an accomplished painter who had a fascination bordering on obsession with large, round, sad eyes. “I have an endless interest in eyes,” Margaret, who is now 87, told me. She was calling from her home in Napa Valley, where she still paints every day. “I felt that the eyes portrayed my inner feelings. And I’ve always drawn them very big. Walter liked that—he thought it was interesting. He said, ‘You have something there.’”
A native of Nashville, Margaret married young, but left her first husband and was trying to support herself and her daughter as a single mother when she encountered Walter, who swept her off her feet. As an artist, she was prolific—she’d usually have five canvases going at once—so her house was filled with big-eyed children. But she also had jobs painting men’s ties and furniture to get by.
Walter, who claimed to be a professional artist, did have his own artwork—landscapes, self-portraits, street scenes, and nudes—that he said he had painted while living in Paris. He started showing his paintings, as well as Margaret’s, at the Hungry I, a nightclub that had a celebrity clientele. “Everyone in the bars in San Francisco knew Walter,” she told me. Margaret, who was either home working or taking care of her daughter, rarely went out at night with her husband. But one evening she put on a cocktail dress and went to the nightclub.
“It was a nightmare,” Margaret recalled. She discovered that Walter had been selling her work as his own for more than a year. The Big Eyed Children were signed, simply,keane,so it was easy for him to let people assume that he had painted them. “We went round and round over what he had done,” Margaret said, still sounding emotional decades later. “He threatened me—he kept telling me that if I told the truth, we would be sued for fraud by the people, some of whom were famous, who had bought the paintings. He told me he would hurt me if I told anyone that I was painting the paintings. I couldn’t even tell my daughter. I didn’t want to put her in danger.”
In addition to his gifts for fraud and mendacity, Walter had another tremendous skill: He was a brilliant entrepreneur, who saw the potential in mass market art early on. (Andy Warhol famously praised Keane’s work as “terrific.”) Around 1959, Walter opened the Keane Art gallery in San Francisco, where he established an industry selling Big Eyes paintings and posters. “He would say to me, ‘Kittens are selling, and I need you to paint more kittens,’” Margaret said. “The more I painted, the more Walter wanted. So I knocked them out.”
Margaret did not speak up, but, frustrated by her lack of recognition, she pursued another artistic style on the side: stylish, Amedeo Modigliani-inspired portraits of young women with elongated bodies and less pronounced eyes. She signed them, with Walter’s permission, MDH Keane. Although the “small eye” paintings are less kitschy than the Big Eyes, they did not catch on with the same fervor. “It was difficult to develop another style,” Margaret explained. “And I needed to make art that would sell. I couldn’t even afford to keep my own paintings. I had to part with them to pay for our lifestyle, which, at that point, was quite lavish. Walter liked nice things.”
In 1964, Margaret finally left Walter, but she continued to paint for him. He had copyrighted all the Big Eyes artworks under his name, and Margaret felt she had no choice. “It was my fault for letting it happen,” she told me. “I was ashamed.”
She was also aware that women artists seldom had the same success as men. Her “small eye” paintings had not sold as well as the Big Eyes. “The more famous the paintings became, the worse it was for me,” she said. Walter, meanwhile, became insanely grandiose. In an elaborate scheme of self-promotion, he invented Johnson Meyers, publisher of the Tomorrow’s Masters Series, and made himself the subject of a coffee table monograph. In the jacket copy, he compares himself to da Vinci, Gauguin, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Renoir. He also concocted a story about how the Big Eyed Children were inspired by orphans he had encountered in post–World War II Germany. He claimed to be so moved by their suffering that he had to share their images with the world.
Eventually, around 1986, Margaret got up the nerve to sue him. At the trial (spoiler alert!), the judge, stymied by the couple’s competing stories, had two easels set up in the courtroom and asked them both to paint something. While Walter stalled, complaining of a sore shoulder, Margaret quietly created a Big Eyed Child. Walter’s canvas remained blank. “After the trial, he still continued to rant and rave,” Margaret said. “But he’d lost his credibility. I had finally stopped him.”
When Burton was filming Mars Attacks! in San Francisco in ____1995, he sought out Margaret Keane. Over the years, he had bought several Keane paintings and had learned the story of Walter’s massive duplicity. Margaret was living in Sebastopol, a small town in Northern California, and Burton asked her to paint his then girlfriend and their equally big-eyed dog, a Chihuahua named Poppy. “I happily did it,” Margaret recalled. “And I liked Tim right away. We became friends. I later painted Helena and their son, Billy. I put Tim in an alley, quietly watching. That’s Tim!”
Throughout his life, Burton has drawn his own big-eyed characters. While the Keane paintings have an extreme melancholy mixed with over-the-top cuteness, Burton’s drawings are simultaneously adorable and ghoulish: His tiny children have heads like pincushions stuck full of needles; his voluptuous women have bloody gashes across their delicate necks; and a beloved dog is stitched together and reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster. Invariably, their eyes are gigantic and watchful.
“I have always loved people with big eyes,” Burton said. “Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Helena—they all have large round eyes. Because of that, I felt I owed Margaret a debt. Her work had a great impact on me, and when I met her, she reminded me of my grandmother, who was very quiet, very lovely.” Burton, who had a strained relationship with his parents, moved in with his grandmother when he was 12. “Her home felt like a sanctuary,” Burton told me a few weeks after our meeting in New York, calling from London, where he has been based since making Batman there in the late ’80s. “I came to London to make Batman, and instantly felt at home. Almost like an out-of-body sense of familiarity. I like the weather: It’s rarely sunny and almost always gray.” He paused. “My grandmother would let me hang around her. I could draw all day and watch movies on Saturday mornings, like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and Plan 9 From Outer Space, directed by Ed Wood. She was fine with it.”
In 1994, after a string of box office smashes, Burton persuaded Disney to let him make a biopic about Wood, who may have been the worst director of all time. The screenwriters of that movie, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, went on to write a screenplay about Walter and Margaret Keane. They wanted to direct their Keane film themselves but couldn’t arrange the financing. The project finally came together in 2013, after Burton had a chance encounter with the actress Amy Adams. “I happened to be standing next to her at the luncheon for the Academy Award nominees. I was there for Frankenweenie, and Amy was there for The Master. We chatted, and she called me the next day and said she had read Big Eyes. She wanted to play Margaret.”
Suddenly, the funding fell into place. Before starting production, Adams went to meet Margaret at her home in Napa. She wanted to watch Margaret paint, to see how she held her brush. To illustrate the process, Margaret painted a picture of Amy’s eye. “Just one,” Margaret recalled. “I wanted it to be special.” The two bonded: As a woman working in a male-dominated business, Adams empathized with Margaret’s situation. “I have always fought for myself,” Adams told me. “But it’s not always easy. And Margaret came of age in a more sexist time.”
Burton sees the Walter-Margaret conflict as more universal: “It is a classic dysfunctional relationship,” he said, sounding delighted. “And I am always fascinated—as I think we all are—by things that don’t work.” Although the Keane story is true (making the dysfunction that much more poignant), all of Burton’s films reveal a penchant for damaged people with secrets. Whether it’s Batman, in which Michael Keaton portrays the caped crusader as brooding and troubled, or Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, where the hidden truth is delectable cannibalism, or animated films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which bringing terror to the unsuspecting is a joy, Burton loves mayhem and transgressive behavior.
“Maybe that’s why I love the Keane paintings so much,” Burton said. “When they came out, they were mocked for not being serious ‘art,’ and they were criticized because they were hugely popular. But once you know the story behind them, they seem very dark and quite emotional.” Burton was talking about Margaret Keane and also, perhaps, about his own early films, many of which received negative reviews when they were released but are now considered classics. “Margaret’s paintings will be seen differently now. Big Eyes has my kind of happy ending.”
Grooming by Petra Sellge for Liz Earle; Digital Technician: Sebastian Nevols; Photography Assistant: Andy Lo Po.